There are doubtlessly hundreds of ways for a church to care for the poor. This is just one of many ways to go about it. My congregation has just these last few months tried this, and the early results are promising, but it’s really too early to evaluate the effort.
And I urgently want to point out how very little I’ve had to do with this. This is bragging on what Jesus is doing through my brothers and sisters in my home church. It’s most definitely not bragging on me.
But I think it’s important to give a concrete example of how a very traditional church can be transformed into a church that is a benevolence program.
After the visioning program in 1995 I described in an earlier post, we started a small group program. We’d just had a spurt of growth and felt the need to help assimilate new members and get to know each other better. And the program served this purpose very well.
Over the next several years, we tried to get the program to be evangelistic, and it just never worked. New members greatly enjoyed the program, but lots of older, more mature members dropped out. They had their friends, the lessons were simplistic, and the meetings were a lot of trouble.
A couple of years ago, we renamed the groups “Acts 2 Groups” instead of “Family Groups,” and we asked the groups to take on a simple community-oriented project, such as wrapping presents for free outside a shopping center during Christmas or giving out free water at local athletic events.
Not all the groups took up the suggestion, but several did and found that they really enjoyed it. It gave them a chance to be known as a Christian without appearing threatening or evoking a hostile response. Sermons are much better lived than preached.
“Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” Francis of Assisi.
The Spirit seemed to be pushing our church more and more into community involvement. The members had initiated several benevolence programs–buying and giving away school supplies for hundreds of needy children each year, distributing food to needy families each week, buying Thanksgiving dinner for the poor, tutoring children at a local elementary school in one of the poorest parts of town–and more.
One of our newest members, who’d transferred from an anti-institutional Church of Christ, asked if we could help the Acts 2 Groups get more involved in the community. His group had trouble figuring what they could do that would actually make a difference.
After some discussion, we realized that several groups very much wanted to get involved in community service but just didn’t know how. We affluent whites don’t know who to call in the social service agencies or what the needs really are.
And so our member agreed to chair a committee to figure this out. He found several members who are social workers, probation officers, or otherwise deeply involved in the social needs of the community. They concluded that the community’s biggest need wasn’t for more programs but for more volunteers.
They interviewed leaders of various social services agencies and asked them how we could help. Ultimately, they made a list of a few dozen agencies that did good work that could benefit from the kind of work our members could do.
When the Acts 2 Groups were formed this year, the leaders were asked to invite their groups to adopt a community service agency or other worthy project.
Now, we elders spent some time with the leaders of this program–the ADOPT program, we call it–lowering expectations. We didn’t want them too disappointed if only handful of groups got involved.
However, our skepticism was entirely unjustified. At this point, 19 of the community agencies have been adopted by one or more Acts 2 Groups. Some groups share an agency, so more than 19 groups have taken the plunge. This is better than 2/3rds of our groups.
Other groups have taken on other kinds of projects. I’ll give two examples. One group discovered a small neighborhood in town where nearly every resident is a widow or widower. They adopted the neighborhood, helping to trim bushes, clean out gutters, rake leaves and such. They finished their fall clean up work with a barbecue for all the residents.
Another group, of young married couples, has adopted a 23-year old member of our church, mother of two, who has recently lost her husband in a tragic car wreck. They are helping with child care and working around the house, so she has the time to finish college so she can support herself and her children.
We were concerned about what would happen if we gave the groups guidance but no restrictions on how they might serve the community. We should never have worried.
Now, it’s too early to really evaluate this effort. It only began in September of this year. But here are a few thoughts–
* We were created and designed from the inside out to be like Jesus. We are flawed, though, and it seems unnatural and unpleasant in prospect. But when we actually get involved in serving others–even complete strangers–we love it! It’s joyous.
* I think one reason our members have responded so well is that they were prepared by easier, lower-threshold projects. For years, one of our most popular ministries for volunteers has been Harvest Hands, which gives food to people certified by social agencies as needing help beyond what the government provides. They’ve had to turn away volunteers for years.
More recently, we’ve given away school supplied to hundreds.
Our members have always been insistent on doing this service face to face. We invite people to breakfast and we distribute the supplies family by family.
Lots of members turn out for the big giveaway day, and they have a great time.
* We’ve never nagged, cajoled, or made threats to get volunteers for benevolence activities. People quickly burn out and lose interest if their hearts aren’t in it.
* Evangelism is important, but we try to let evangelism come naturally. For years our Harvest Hands ministry had zero converts from among those provided food. However, a retired minister moved to our church and he began a Bible study with 30 women whom we served in the ministry. He just invited them to class as he helped load the food in their cars. And lately he’s begun baptizing some of his students.
But long before these baptisms, we had converts, just indirectly. Members were proud our their congregation for giving food to the needy and so they invited their friends to church. Teenagers and college students volunteered, learned they loved serving, and some have become missionaries and professional ministers.
The influence of being like Jesus flows in many paths.
* Being multi-ethnic, multi-racial is important. It’s hard to persuade poor black or Hispanic people that you love them for who they are if your congregation is entirely white. Nor will you get many to visit your services.
* Be patient. Changing the culture of a congregation takes time. If you push too hard and too fast, some members will start to feel morally superior to those who don’t respond as fast. If you too hard and too fast, some will leave rather than suffer guilty feelings because they just can’t change as fast as you want.
* Our staff is deeply involved in our benevolence efforts, but these are all volunteer-led efforts. I think every one has come as an initiative from volunteer members.
This requires, of course, a leadership that allows members to take initiative. In fact, most of these efforts have never even come before the elders for approval. We aren’t entirely out of control, but it’s not really about control so much as getting out of the way.
Again, we don’t have it all figured out–and no one is asking us to publish books on how to do things right. We’re just taking baby steps and hoping God teaches us how to run.
The reason I share this, though, is to prove that even a Church of Christ can become effective within its community. It’s not part of our tradition. It’s not how we do church. We are mainly about doctrinal purity and worshiping correctly.
And if we can change, others can, too.